TRENDS IN SPORTS: More Discussion of E-Gaming as Sport

Building upon Doug Abram’s superb column from earlier this week about the threat that videogames pose to our kids’ long-term health, I presented to the WFAN listening audience this straightforward question: knowing how popular videogaming has become in recent years with our kids, has it now reached a level where it can and should be considered as a real sport?

Not surprisingly, the general response was that no, it’s not a sport, but more of an activity. Something closer in scope to playing cards or throwing darts than. say, a traditional athletic pursuit like football, lacrosse, or baseball. The key criteria kept coming back to the dictionary definition of “sport” involving physical exertion causing perspiration.

But there was lots of debate. For example, is NASCAR a sport? Does driving a car, albeit fast, constitute real exercise?

How about bass fishing? After all, bass fishing is a sanctioned varsity sport in several states in the Midwest.

Yet the real takeaway from this AM’s discussion was the following: that no matter whether e-gaming is considered a sport or activity or just a pastime, there was true and genuine concern about kids spending hours and hours in front of a computer screen, seemingly addicted to games showing very violent themes. That is, in recent years, the medical association has warned over and over again that kids today need to remain physically fit in order to stave off long-term health issues regarding obesity, diabetes, and other concerns. In short, today’s generation of kids are running a real risk of having all sorts of illnesses, many of which could be prevented if they remained physically fit instead of being hooked on e-games.

IS THERE A SOLUTION?

Everybody pretty much agreed that e-gaming is only beginning to become more and more popular. Even the TV networks have picked up on this trend, and made e-gaming into a major event that generates decent TV ratings.

Because this is a not a temporary fad, parents are growing concerned about their kids who are spending more and more time in front of their computers.

In fact, several callers suggested that parents really need to step up and intervene and just don’t look the other way. No, not to forbid their kids from playing videogames, but to have a serious parent-to-child conversation about the dangers of this activity. Just in the same way that Moms and Dads need to talk with their kids about the inherent dangers about smoking or drugs, parents need to tell kids about the issues of spending too much time in front of the computer.

One caller suggested that parents should mandate that for every hour a kid spends playing a video game, he or she needs to spend at least an hour outside exercising in the fresh air and playing a real sport.

These are interesting suggestions, but one thing is clear. We’re going to hear and hear about e-gaming in the years to come, and it’s going to be incumbent on Moms and Dads to figure out a new way to handle a problem — like concussions — that is not going away.

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Have Video Games Now Become a Real Sport for our Kids?

More About Whether Playing Video Games Is Exercise: The New Johns Hopkins University Study

By Doug Abrams

Constructive dialogue sometimes emerges when, close in time to one another, the media reports a pair of developments that offer contrasting perspectives. For youth sports parents, coaches, and community decision makers, such a pair appeared within a week in early May. The contrasting perspectives carry implications important for public health and for youth well-being.

“Big Dividends”

The first development came from the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University. In the journal Health Affairs, the Center published a research study that detailed the harmful effects of childhood physical inactivity for the nation and for children themselves. Led by Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, the Center’s executive director, researchers found that “encouraging exercise and investing in physical activity such as school recess and youth sports leagues when kids are young pay big dividends as they grow up.”

Many of the dividends are financial. Under the headline “Overweight Kids Are Costing America Billions,” USA TODAY summarized key findings from the Johns Hopkins study: “[I]f half of America’s children age 8 through 11 exercised for 25 minutes, three times a week, there would be 340,000 fewer overweight and obese children, saving $21.9 billion in lifetime lost wages and medical bills. If all children followed the same plan, 1.2 million children would avoid becoming obese or overweight, enough to save $62.3 billion.”

For children themselves, regular physical exercise pays dividends by opening the door to healthier lives. The John’s Hopkins researchers cite reduced risks of obesity and associated chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, and cancer throughout adulthood.

Among other recommendations, the research team urges adults to “get your kids to play sports, even if they won’t become stars.”  Dr. Lee and his colleague Dr. Marie Ferguson observe, however, that trends are moving in the wrong direction. Children today spend “too much time on smartphones, computers and television,” coupled with “declining participation in sports.”

E-sports

Early May’s second development came barely a week after the Johns Hopkins research study appeared. The Chicago Tribune carried a thoughtful article by John Keilman under the headline, “Video Gaming: The Next High School Sport? Competitive ESports Gain Traction.” The story was about a video game competition among Chicago-area high schools. Keilman reported that as more and more high schools establish competitive e-sports teams based on fantasy professional leagues, the Illinois High School Association might sanction e-sports as an interscholastic sport sometime soon.

Keilman tested the limits of the video game competition’s analogies. “Did the competitors put in many hours of practice? Yes. Did they possess physical and mental gifts? Affirmative. Was teamwork a crucial ingredient for success? Absolutely.” But one element was missing — “perspiration.” “It’s hard to break a sweat when you’re sitting in a climate-controlled room moving little more than your fingers.”

The 2015 Research Reports 

Last month’s Johns Hopkins study and Chicago Tribune article recall two reports published in June, 2015. In the first report, nearly a quarter of surveyed children between the ages of five and 16 told Britain’s Youth Sports Trust that they consider playing computer games with friends to be physical activity. Among seven- and eight-year-olds, the percentage was nearly a third.

The children said that they play sports or otherwise engage in exercise about 30 to 40 minutes a day (often in mandated school physical education programs), but that they spend nearly three hours a day playing with technology. The Trust predicted that today’s younger generation risks becoming “hostages to handheld devices.”

The second 2015 report, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, estimated that more than two-thirds of Americans over the age of 25 (nearly 75% of men and nearly 67% of women) are now either overweight or obese. For the first time, more American adults are obese than overweight (67.6 million vs. 65.2 million). The percentages are the highest ever, substantially higher than ones reported 20 years earlier.

Meanwhile, National Public Radio estimated that more than a third of American children are overweight or obese, a troublesome number because (as former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher said in 2001) “adolescents who are overweight are at high risk of becoming overweight or obese adults.”

JAMA researcher Lin Yang told American Health Line that technology has “changed the dynamic of our lifestyle.” As accelerating technological advances contribute to overweight and obesity, Dr. Yang sounded a “wake-up call” for action in “multiple sectors.”

“Increase Team Sport Participation Among All Students”

One of these sectors is community youth sports programs. In 2012, Pediatrics (the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) featured a study that measured the positive effects on children’s health of various forms of physical exercise. These forms included active commuting to school (such as by walking or biking), regular participation in school physical education classes, and participation in team sports.

Dr. Keith M. Drake and his research team found that active commuting to school has some residual positive effect on a student’s body weight, but that participation in high school physical education classes does not.  But there was more.  The researchers found that “[t]eam sports participation had the strongest and most consistent inverse association with weight status.”  The study estimates that overweight and obesity would “decrease by 11% and 26% respectively, if adolescents played on at least 2 sports teams per year.”

The researchers’ antidote? “Obesity prevention programs should consider strategies to increase team sport participation among all students.”

Good News and Bad News

Taken together, these recent studies demonstrate that inclusive community youth sports programs can enhance the public health by improving children’s lives. But recent accounts, appearing in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, suggest that youth sports enrollments appear to be declining in many parts of the nation.

On the positive side of the ledger, an estimated 35 million children — nearly half of all American youngsters — join at least one organized sports program each year.  But on the negative side, about 70% of these youngsters quit playing organized sports by the time they turn 13, and nearly all quit by the time they turn 15.  Indeed, the dropout rate begins accelerating as early as age 10.

A Role for Video Gaming?

In prior columns, I have written about how much work remains to be done before community youth sports systems become all that they can be. Also honing the national dialog about national health needs and youth well-being are such leading voices as my friends Rick Wolff, Bob Bigelow, Positive Coaching Alliance, the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, and the MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety.

As work continues on the youth sports front, what role might exist for interscholastic video gaming?  A generation or so ago, competitive television quiz shows such as “It’s Academic” and “The College Bowl” won loyal followings by encouraging excellence from high school and college students. The competitions inspired board games for home play, the closest analogues to what we call interactive media today. No one (in John Keilman’s words) ever “broke a sweat.” For participants and viewers alike, traditional interscholastic sports competition suited many students, but not all students.

In the 21st century, interscholastic sports-based video game competitions may similarly hold promise for students who do not want to play traditional organized sports. Similar to other school-based non-athletic extracurricular activities, these interscholastic competitions may also hold promise for students whose skills do not readily permit such play. Growing numbers of colleges and universities reportedly offer scholarships to accomplished competitive video gamers.

High schools can teach teamwork, dedication, dexterity, and similar skills through extracurricular activities that take place off the playing field. But video gaming, competitive or otherwise, provides no substitute for physical exercise. Whether through organized competitive sports or more informal individual exercise, encouraging lifestyles rich in physical activity remains a public health imperative for children and adolescents who also follow other pursuits.

 

Sources: Modeling the Economic and Health Impact of Increasing Children’s Physical Activity in the United States, Health Affairs, p. 902 (No. 5, 2017); Sean Rossman, Overweight Kids Are Costing America Billions, USA TODAY, May 1, 2007;  Future Foundation, The Class of 2035: Promoting a Brighter and More Active Future For the Youth of Tomorrow; John Keilman Video Gaming: The Next High School Sport? Competitive Esports Gain Traction, Chicago Tribune, May 12, 2017; Bruce Y. Lee & Marie Ferguson, More Physical Activity Among Children Will Save America Billions, STAT (May 2, 2017);  Hannah Richardson, BBC News, Youths Becoming Hostages to Handheld Devices, Says Charity (June 23, 2015); Lin Yang & Graham A. Colditz, Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity in the United States, 2007-2012, JAMA Internal Medicine, June 22, 2015; Am. Health Line, Study: Significant Uptick in Overweight, Obese U.S. Residents, June 23, 2015; U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services, The Surgeon General’s Call To Action To Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity (2001); National Public Radio, Morning Edition, Childhood Obesity (July 1, 2015); Keith M. Drake et al., Influence of Sports, Physical Education, and Active Commuting to School on Adolescent Weight Status, Pediatrics, vol. 130, p. e296 (Aug. 2012); HealthDayNews, Increased Physical Activity  For Children May Save Billions, Study Says (May 2, 2017); Mike Brennan, LTU Offers $600,000 in Scholarships to Video Gamers, https://mitechnews.com/steam/ltu-offers-600000-scholarships-video-gamers/  (May 23, 2017).

PARENTS VS. COACHES: Why Parents Feel Compelled to Meddle

A most interesting conversation with Bob Cook from Forbes Magazine this AM. Bob, who writes a youth sports column entitled Your Kid’s Not Going Pro, was talking about why so many parents feel empowered – almost entitled – to meddle with their coach’s HS or travel coach.

Of course, most coaches have rules in place regarding parents. That is, no talking with the coach for at least 24 hours after a game…or parent can set up a formal office appointment with the coach….and in some cases, the coaches insist that the youngster himself or herself talk with the coach and not the parents.

But most parents feel – especially after they have invested a lot of time and money in their kid’s sports education – that the HS coach needs to be doing everything he or she can to promote the kid’s talents so that he or she can shine on the varsity, be named to All-Star teams, and ideally put together a stellar athletic resume that will attract college coaches.

“ENLIGHTEN” THE COACH

So if the kid is not getting enough playing time, or is playing the wrong position, or is not named as a team captain or All-League, then the parent begins to develop a growing unease that he needs to talk with the coach and to “enlighten” him or her as to just how talented their son or daughter is.

Bob agreed, and took this step one further: basically, by the time your is 16 or 17, they probably already know whether they’re one of the top stars on the team. And they also know what their realistic odds are of playing in college.

Problem is, the parents don’t pick up on any of this. They see their kid as being one of the best, if not the best, athlete on the team, and as a consequence, with a little extra boost or promotion from the coach, the youngster should be attracting college scholarships.

But of course, it doesn’t work out that way. As we know, very few HS kids are good enough – or for that matter, even have the desire – to play at the next level. And as a result, the real disappointment ends up with the Mom or Dad who have been the last 10 years hoping and spending their way to help insure their kid gets one of those golden tickets.

Invariably, it’s the parent who feels that their dreams are being crushed….not so much their child’s.

Too often, this is a sad and disappointing outcome, but unfortunately, it happens all too often.

 

SPECIALIZATION: Some Thoughts to Ponder…

Just a quick note regarding young athletes and specialization.

Parents always ask me all the time about whether it’s a good idea to have their youngster specialize in one sport.

And yes, for a young sports parent, this is always one of the first decisions that they will face with their child. I personally feel it’s not necessary for a 6 or 8 year old or even an older youngster to just play one sport.

And to that end, listeners to my WFAN Sports Edge show continue to send me more and more examples of top athletes who DID NOT specialize. To wit:

Sports Edge listener Tom Smith points out that Utah Jazz All-Star Gordon Hayward was a much more accomplished tennis player in HS in Indiana than in basketball — mainly because he was only 5-9 in HS. He didn’t expect to grow much more because both of his parents are under 6 feet. But then he did grow, and grew to be 6-8 and became a star at Butler University and is now an All-Star in the NBA….again, he didn’t specialize, and in fact, was more proficient in tennis in HS than in hoops.

And Sports Edge listener Gregg Barry from LI adds these fascinating insights: 

Baseball Hall of Famer Carl Yaz had the Suffolk County (NY) scoring record in basketball.

Baseball Hall of Famer Craig Biggio who was Suffolk County Player of the Year in football but not baseball.

Football NFL MVP and WFAN colleague Boomer Esiason was Suffolk County Player of the Year in baseball but not football.

Basketball All Star Wally Szczerbiak was All Suffolk County in baseball.

Football Pro Bowler Steven Boyd was All County in lacrosse.

And then, of course,  there’s Jim Brown from LI who starred in both football and lacrosse in HS and college.

And don’t forget current Cincinnati Reds pitcher Amir Garrett who was drafted and signed out of HS in Vegas. But the Reds allowed Amir to play basketball, which he did at St. John’s University for two years as a 6-5 guard.

In short, there are countless examples of athletes who didn’t feel the need to specialize in just one sport…

Again,  it’s something to consider if you’re a parent.

And by the way, my thanks to the Sports Edge friends who sent these notes along.

 

 

PITCH COUNTS: Are They Really Working…or Resulting in Too Many HS Forfeits?

Now that we’re most than halfway through the HS baseball season, I thought it would be smart to review whether the state-by-state rules regarding pitch counts and limits are actually having a positive impact.

And overall, I do think it’s very fair to say that the pitch count rules have – if nothing else – have finally made baseball coaches — and hopefully parents — aware of the dangers of having young arms be overly taxed during their teenage years.

And that’s all to the good.

But in order to achieve this goal, there have been a lot of extra rules and regulations put into place, and seemingly done so in a rushed fashion. The end result has been a startling number of HS games forfeit due to pitch count violations, as well as more and more coaches trying to work a sense of gamemanship into their strategy. As a result, the bottom line is that the pitch count rules have to be viewed as very much a work still in progress.

As my guest Steve Kallas pointed out, there have games forfeit all over the country, including New Jersey, Illinois, North Carolina, Idaho – pretty much everywhere. For example, in Illinois, in one game, one team was up 13-3 and there was really no need for the starting pitcher who had the lead to go out and pitch another  inning. But his coach apparently lost track of how many days of rest the kid had, and the game ended up as a forfeit.

In fact, there have been at least 11 forfeits in Illinois this year alone. 

In Colorado, a HS which won a game 8-4 saw that win turn into a loss when they had to forfeit the game.

In North Carolina, the AD of the winning HS team reported his baseball coach’s mistake regarding a pitch count to the league board and that ended in a forfeit

Closer to home, in NJ, the Carteret  v. Perth Amboy game a couple of weeks ago ended with a pitch count dispute. The outcome of that game is still in dispute.

As the calls poured in, it was clear that HS coaches were now finding ways to use the pitch count as a weapon against the opposing team. For example, instructing one’s batters to take as many pitches as possible in order to push the pitcher’s count higher late in the game. Other coaches were throwing their ace only 30 pitches on one day, then allowing him to come back the very next day for another 30. Then, having him rest a day, and coming back to throw 50-60 pitches the next day. In many states, that’s very legal, even though it’s probably not very healthy for the kid’s arm.

Others complained about why it’s the home team that has the ultimate verdict on pitch counts. That is, if there’s a discrepancy between the home and visiting team, it’s the home team whose count wins. Umpires clearly do not want to get in the middle of these disputes.

And on and on the conversation went. It was clear to Steve and myself that this is an issue that needs to addressed and modified and reworked in the off-season. And the first issue to start with is – -why is the game totally forfeit? That seems like a draconian punishment for all concerned. There has to be a better – and fairer – way to protect kids’ arms via the new pitch count limits.

 

 

COPING WITH ADVERSITY: Are Sports Parents Shielding Their Kids Too Much?

 Teaching Youth Leaguers to Overcome Adversity:

Perspectives From a Hall of Fame Coach

By Doug Abrams

Tom Izzo, Michigan State University’s successful head basketball coach, sat for a lengthy interview last month on “The Drive With Jack Ebling.” The recent inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame said that, “We’re creating a system that we’re never teaching a kid how to fight through [tough times].” Izzo sees the system’s fruits with collegiate players, but “creation” begins ripening earlier during the youth league years.

Coach Izzo’s commentary invites reexamination of how parents and coaches react to winning and losing in youth leagues. Fighting through adversity takes many forms, but teaching young players how to cope with defeat ranks high on the list.

No Winners Without Losers

First, a few preliminaries. . . . Too many youth league parents and coaches fear defeat, which the adults liken to failure. But youth leaguers need no shield because losing games is a natural, inevitable, and ultimately healthy part of growing up. Few youth teams go undefeated for very long. Every day of every season, at least half the children competing in America lose.  Each one returns to play another day.

Only one team can win each game, and only one team can finish in first place.  Youth-league standings typically show between five and ten “losing” teams for every first-place team. Some meets and tournaments create even greater disparities by guaranteeing 25 or more “losers” for every first-place finisher. One way or another, youth sports would have no “winners” without lots of “losers.”

Learning How to Lose

A colleague once told me that youth leaguers must learn how to lose gracefully before they can win with dignity. He said that most great professional athletes learned how to lose when they were young, and that the lesson helped make them stronger.

My colleague hit the target because, with guidance from their coaches and parents, young athletes can learn plenty from losing. In the short term, players on a winning streak can lapse into complacency and begin taking success for granted.  But when the team drops a few games, players may begin asking themselves, “What are we doing wrong, and how can we do better next game?”

Short term learning, however, is not the central point here. The central point concerns the longer term. Losing provides parents and coaches valuable opportunities to teach strength and resilience in the face of adversity. Youth leaguers benefit from learning how to rebound after setbacks because, like it or not, frustration and thwarted ambition will occur throughout adulthood.  For most adults, losses in life happen more frequently than victories. Youth sports provides exposure to the sting of setback when the stakes are not nearly as high as they will sometimes be later on.

Deflecting Responsibility

Let’s be honest – winning is preferable to losing. Youth sports depends on competitors who each strive to win every game within the rules, and athletes unconcerned about the score should not play. Except at the youngest age levels when scores should not matter, parents and coaches should want their children to win within the rules. But adults serve the children best by also delivering lessons from defeat.

In my years as a youth hockey coach, I watched some parents routinely deflect responsibility from their own children when the team came up short. Blame was cast on others. “We lost because of the coach” or (fill in the blank) “the referees,” “teammates who had an off-day,” or simply “bad luck.”

Child psychologists warn that by shielding their children from setbacks, parents such as these can leave the children ill-prepared to meet challenges of adulthood. Parents naturally want their player to succeed — to win more often than they lose — but young players also need adults who use defeats as “teachable moments,” opportunities to deliver supportive lessons about how to manage when things do not go right.

Lasting Dividends

These lessons can resonate when players move on with their lives long after their last youth league game. In my 35-year career as a law professor, I have seen students struggle to master their coursework, maintain their grades, and prepare for their chosen career. Law school paves a tough road. The curriculum is demanding. Despite the uninterrupted string of prior high school and undergraduate successes that gained them admission, most law students do not finish at or near the top of the class. Even the most talented law students have at least one course grade on their transcript that they wish was not there, and many law students have more than one.

When I see law students hit occasional barriers such as these, I sense that ex-athletes are often better equipped than their classmates to persevere because ex-athletes have learned how to lose, get up off the floor, and bounce back. Resilience and resolve in the face of adversity are lasting dividends of youth league competition.

Source: Chris Vannini, “Tom Izzo: We’re Creating a System Where Kids Don’t Learn to Handle Adversity,” http://coachingsearch.com/article?a=Tom-Izzo-Were-creating-a-system-where-kids-dont-learn-to-handle-adversity (Apr. 13, 2017).

 

DANGERS OF CONCUSSIONS: New Study Suggests More Concussions in Girls Soccer than in HS Football

There was a recent study published headlined by a medical professor at Northwestern University who says that girls who play HS soccer suffer a much higher incidence of concussions than boys do – even those boys who play HS football.

As you might imagine, I was somewhat stunned by this. After all, the vast majority of attention in recent years has been paid to the long-term concerns regarding the health of football players. Sure, it’s well known that concussions can occur in any sport, but this new study shifts the focus to girls’ soccer, and that caught my eye.

In the study, which looked at 41,000 injuries to HS athletes in 9 popular sports between 2005-2015,  6,400 concussions were tabulated.

And during that time span, the concussion rate for girls’ soccer was higher than in football – and especially in the years from 2014-2015.

Now, if you’re a sports parent of a daughter who plays soccer, what does this mean? Suddenly, you may be having some of the medical misgivings about soccer as the parents of football players do. Of course, as I have noted over the years, concussions are part of all sports, and accidents do happen. I would daresay that it’s rare to find a kid who hasn’t suffered at least one concussion during their playing career.

But that being said, concussions do come in different degrees, and athletes and parents and coaches have to be careful about the handling of serious concussions. And medical doctors caution about repeated concussions; that is, one hit to the head can be treated, but if the youngster returns to action too soon, and receives another concussion, that’s where long-term concerns come into play.

 

In any event, I asked my listeners this AM as to what’s causing the spike in female concussions?  Is this due to excessive heading of the ball in soccer? Or heading being done incorrectly?

Should the girls in soccer be wearing more protective headgear? I know some girls wear protective headgear AFTER they suffer a concussion….but should they all be wearing headgear as a precaution as well?

And of course, is there just too much physical contact during the game?

Not surprisingly, the responses ranged from too much heading, and that it’s taught incorrectly at the younger ages when the most damage can be done to a developing brain. Head gear is also now receiving more and more attention as a protective measure. And finally, one caller suggested that the refs have to do a better job in controlling the physical action on the field in order to minimize physical contact. Kids falling to the turf and hitting their heads on the ground is a major source of concussion.

AND WHAT ABOUT GIRLS LACROSSE?

In addition, I know there’s been a lot of talk in recent months about girls lax and girls being told to wear headgear to protect them from concussions.

But from what I can tell, while some schools make such headgear mandatory, this protective trend isn’t really taking off in a big way – even though I can personally tell you from the years of watching my two daughters play lax in HS that there’s no question that getting hit in the head by a stick or errant pass is alarmingly routine in games.

Yet in discussing this issue with my daughters, they both felt strongly that protective headgear in lax would be a mistake – that it’s just not needed, and that it would indeed make the game much more aggressive as players would take more liberties in attacking opponents on the run and using their sticks.

Remember that traditionally, girls lax has been considered a non-contact sport. To me, though, and perhaps you share my views, I have never believed girls lax to be a non-contact sport. And if you have even seen a HS girls lax game recently, I’m sure you feel the same way. It is hardly a non-contact sport, and the fact that the girls do have to wear mouth guards and eye goggles and carry sticks and throw around a heavy hard rubber ball makes it a dangerous activity.

So where do we go from here? For starters, both in girls soccer and lax, more than ever it’s incumbent on parents and coaches to make sure that kids are well taught about how to head a soccer ball, and how to play a competitive game but not doing so in a physical manner. Same goes for lax. Learn how to use the lax stick as a tool, but not as a weapon. Learn how to control the ball and learn how to pass it correctly.

No, sadly, concussions are not going away. But we really do need to adopt protective measures at the youth level to make sure our daughters are protected.

YOUTH BASEBALL TRENDS: “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?”

When Casey Stengel was managing the hapless New York Mets in their first year of existence in 1962, Casey became so frustrated with his team’s lack of fundamental baseball that he once exclaimed in frustration: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

That moment was well over 50 years ago, and of course, Casey, as he was wont to do, was exaggerating more than a bit.

But a few weeks ago, in a most provocative column in the New York Times, sportswriter Bill Pennington echoed Casey’s sentiments — sentiments, by the way, that not only do I share but they are shared by countless baseball coaches and fans across the country.

In short, Bill’s article basically said that due to the expansive growth in recent times of private coaches for hitting and for pitching instruction, we have now produced a ton of young ballplayers who are well skilled when it comes to those particular facets of the game….but unfortunately, the other parts of their baseball skills have been either somewhat left behind, or ignored, or just not taught. To be fair, Pennington wasn’t blaming the private instructors; he was just reporting what he has found.

In other words, young ballplayers today know that when college coaches or pro scouts come looking, they’re focusing on certain basic skills – can a pitcher throw really hard, and can a kid hit well and hit with power?

The problem is, all the other key stuff involved in playing baseball, like knowing how to field one’s position, or how to put down a sac bunt, or how to run the bases is either ignored, or just assumed that it can be taught later on. And as Pennington points out, it’s now fallen upon college coaches to spend copious amounts of time to educate college kids on the basics of the game.

It’s a startling observation and accusation…but it’s all true. Here’s a direct quote from Bill’s article:

In the last decade or so, a generation of top ballplayers has, in most cases, spent little time learning how to accurately throw across the diamond, catch a fly ball, field a ground ball and turn a double play, run the bases effectively, make a tag at first base, or God forbid, bunt.”

I anticipated a lot of calls on this topic, and indeed they poured in. Some callers pointed to the fact that most youth baseball leagues are coached by either Dads who don’t take the time to teach the basics, or for that matter, those Dads really don’t know the basics. Or that there’s just too much emphasis on playing a lot of games instead of having more practice sessions where drills can be implemented and taught.

Even worse, most practices just evolve into one long batting practice session where kids hit and the others just shag. That’s totally counterproductive in so many ways! A real practice session needs to focus on everything from cutoffs and relays, to how to run the bases, to how to play defense, and on and on Baseball is a complicated sport to play well, and in order to play it well, there’s lots of material that needs to be taught, and taught well.

To that end, Pennington pointed out that there’s lot of teaching material and guides that can be found easily online (such as MLB’s PlayBall.org) where youth, travel, and HS coaches can not only educate themselves on the finer points of the game, but where kids can learn inside baseball as well.

He also said that in his reporting, he discovered that lots of big-time college coaches at the D-I level recruit kids who can hit or pitch, but then the coaches literally teach them the finer points of the game.  That may hard to believe in this day and age, but it’s apparently a national trend.

CAN THIS TREND BE REVERSED?

Bill was also told by some top college coaches that they are now looking at the entire player’s skills set when they go to showcases to recruit. They want to see if the kid knows more about the game beyond just throwing hard, or hitting well. They want to see if the younger has a real feel of how to play the game.

But Bill did feel that this kind of turnaround – where kids begin to learn ALL aspects of playing baseball at an early age – is going to take a long time, and it’s going to take a real change in our current youth sports culture. I agree with Bill: baseball needs to be “reinvented” at the youth level if the game is going to survive in the years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

SPECIALIZATION CONCERNS: Why Does This Trend Continue When the Best Athletes Don’t Specialize?

A recent study by the prestigious American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons came up with two conclusions that sports parents ought to keep in mind.

The problem is….they seem to contradict the other.

Specifically, the Academy said that a recent survey found that 45% of all current HS athletes specialize in one sport. That is, they play that one sport pretty much all year round and don’t spend much time in participating in other HS sports.

Now, we all know that there’s been a substantial increase in the amount of specialization in this country, but apparently the numbers are now reaching close to 50 percent, which is pretty stunning. Remember, it’s the orthopedic surgeons who are the ones doing all of the surgery to repair repetitive use injuries in teenagers, such as Tommy John arm operations, torn ACLs, and so on. There are studies that show a direct correlation between all-year round specialization and a rise in youthful injuries.

But here’s the interesting part. A secondary conclusion of that Academy survey showed that when they talked to current professional athletes, only 22 percent of these elite athletes felt that it was a good idea for their kids to specialize in one sport. In fact, whereas the vast majority of most HS and college athletes felt it was a smart idea to focus on one sport in order to get ahead, only 62% felt that was important.

So here’s the disconnect: we now have a generation of HS athletes who are convinced that specialization is the key to success…..and yet those athletes who are at the top of the athletic pyramid feel pretty much that’s not necessary.

A DILEMMA FOR SPORTS PARENTS

If you’re a mom or dad who has a kid starting out in sports, there seems to be a strong inclination to push one’s child into one sport at age 5 or 6, and keep them progressing as quickly as possible on that one track. If the parent has a favorite sport, say, ice hockey or soccer, parents are inclined to gently prod their kid into playing all year round in that one sport that the parent is familiar with.

Common sense, of course, dictates just the opposite: why not expose the child to a variety of sports, such as soccer, hockey, tennis, swimming, baseball, lax, and so on….and then let the child decide which sport (or sports) they would like to pursue?

Problem is, judging from the calls this AM, it would seem that too many parent s don’t want to take that kind of chance with their kids to play a variety of sports, or to trust them to decide what sport to play. Besides, motivated parents don’t want to “sacrifice” a year or two of development time when their child could be accelerating their advancement in one sport.

WHY ARE WE DOING THIS?

So if close to 50% of HS athletes only play one sport, what does this mean? For starters, it means that all-around athletes who used to play two or three HS sports during the year are no longer competing for their school at different sports. That means that HS coaches are looking at fewer talented players coming out for their squads. And in turn, it puts pressure on the HS coaches to try and “attract” top athletes to focus on their sport, rather than share them with their coaching colleagues.

And of course, with specialization, there’s a rise in repetitive use injuries, burn out issues, and for too many athletes, a sense that they are no longer playing sports because it’s fun and enjoyable, but instead, it’s become more of an obligation and a chore.

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Why are Fewer Kids Playing Baseball and Softball?

At a sports parenting event this past week in Norwalk, CT, several of the attendees mentioned that in recent years, there’s been a definite downward trend in terms of kids coming out for baseball and softball, especially at the youth levels.

That got me thinking, because certainly the popularity of sports goes up and down in cycles, pretty much like everything else in life. For example, we already know that youth football numbers have decreased dramatically due to worries about concussions. And the numbers for American youth involvement in tennis has also gone down, although there’s no clear reason as to why.

On this morning’s radio show, some callers suggested that the real, underlying reason for fewer numbers in certain sports has more do with the impact of elite travel teams than with a general lack of interest of the kids. What they meant was that unless a youngster is being viewed as a star at age 9 or 10, and as a result, are good enough to make an elite travel team, then all the other kids who are pretty good but not good enough to make the travel team often discover there are no other outlets in which to practice, play, and improve their skills.

DISENFRANCHISED KIDS

In other words, these “on the bubble” kids as a I call them, find themselves basically disenfranchised. They really don’t have any other outlets in which to play their sport, and as a result, they leave that sport, and in many cases, they leave sports all together.

This is a development that really hasn’t been well documented, and yet, judging from the callers today, this is a growing trend. Kids who play baseball at age 9 or 10 either make an elite travel team, or if they get cut, then there’s no real place to work on their skills and improve. And the result is that fewer and fewer baseball players come out each spring. By the time these kids are HS age, the numbers for baseball and softball have become exceedingly small.

Or, more and more parents are convinced that their kids truly need to specialize in just one sport at an early age. So if a kid decides at age 6 or 7 to play soccer all year round, those kids a generation ago would have tried out for baseball or softball. But these days, due to specializing in just soccer, they no longer sign up for baseball or softball.

Overall, all of this is very unsettling. I mean, how does a parent or a coach determine that a kid at age 9 or 10 is one of the elite? Especially when these kids are still years away from their teenage years and possible growth spurts and lots of other changes associated with adolescence. Nobody seems to ask that question as it relates to kids losing interest in playing sports. What happens is, from the time they’re 10 until they’re 14 and ready for HS, they have stopped playing because they were deemed at a young age as to not being good enough to make a travel team at age 10.

If we’re trying to get kids to stay in shape and learn all the life-long lessons from playing sports, well, we’re not doing a very good job of encouraging them.

THE IMPACT OF VIDEO GAMES

The other concern that popped up this AM was that more and more kids are spending more time playing electronic and video games. True, those games involve eye-hand coordination and one’s score is kept, but I think we all agree that playing video games is not really a sporting endeavor. Regardless, they are very tempting to kids, and it would seem that more and more kids now compete in traditional sports like baseball or football, but do so vicariously via video games.

What’s the bottom line? For better or worse, the travel team culture continues to have more impact on kids in sports these days than perhaps we might think.. And once again, I just wish that there were some federal guidelines or oversight to not only regulate the travel industry but also to provide sports parents with some needed help.